Come On Back

by John Furgele

In two days, women’s athletics have been hit hard by the retirement announcements of Justine Henin and Annika Sorenstam.  Between the two, they have 17 major titles and have been ranked number one in tennis and golf for many, many weeks.

Sorenstam is 37 and her retirement is less of a surprise than the 25 year Henin.  Both married young and both went through divorces.  Sorenstam is engaged and she spoke of moving on and starting a family, something that is very hard to do when you playing golf on a full-time basis.  Sorenstam will finish the season before retiring, while Henin’s retirement is immediate and very surprising.

The French Open begins May 25, in Paris, a place where the Belgian Henin has dominated, winning the last three titles.  She is a gritty player with a tremendous one handed backhand, one of the few to use the one hander from the backhand side.  She was never a warm and fuzzy person and in most matches, the crowd usually rooted for her opponent.  That only added to her persona.  Not only was she tough on opponents, she usually had to battle them and the crowds.  You have to like those who can win in those conditions.

She was also controversial, criticized for not replaying a fault after she stuck her hand out for time against Serena Williams in a French Open semifinal.  Williams claims she saw the hand and became distracted, but both Henin and the chair umpire refused to replay the point.  Whether or not that helped Henin beat Williams is not for me to judge.

She also was criticized for defaulting against Amelie Mauresmo in the Australian Open in final in 2006.  Mauresmo was on her way to a rout when Henin, down a set and 0-2, claimed that her stomach was too ill to continue.  Mauresmo claimed her first major, but did not get to win it “on the court.”  The good thing was that the two matched up in the Wimbledon final later that year and Mauresmo prevailed and won it in traditional style.

I will miss Henin and I will hope that after taking some time off to reflect, the 25 year old will realize that she misses the game and will make a comeback.  But, she could be like her countrywoman, Kim Clisjsters, who also retired young and has not been heard from since. 

Sorenstam referenced Brett Favre in her retirement speech, claiming she loves competing, but the grind of practicing and traveling has worn thin on her.  And, there is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to get married and start a family.  Sorenstam is 37 and unlike Henin, has had a long and productive career (Henin was productive, just not long).  She owes us nothing.  And, even though Lorena Ochoa has replaced as the number one player on the LPGA tour, the Swede is far from washed up.  Last week she beat Ochoa by seven strokes to win an LPGA event, and something tells me she is going to win at least one major this year before calling it quits. 

These retirements may be short lived.  Both may be back playing in six months, 12 months or some other time period.  My gut tells me that Sorenstam’s retirement may be for good, and that would be fine.  We have enjoyed watching her play—and dominate—on the LPGA tour.  Heck, we even enjoyed watching her play against the men at the Colonial several years ago. 

As for Henin, my gut tells me that she will come back, but will realize that it was a mistake and after a few tournaments will retire again.  It’s tough to quit and come back in tennis and there is proof to this.  Martina Hingis came back but never threatened to win a major.  John McEnroe took time off, came back and never made another final of a grand slam event.  Bjorn Borg retired at age 26, came back using a his wooden racket and never did much of anything.  Jennifer Capriati was the only person to take significant time off, come back and win some big events.  It is not an easy thing to do.

The word burnout was used or hinted at by both ladies and it has to be a reason.  Unlike team sports where one’s mood can be perked up by teammates, individual sport athletes have the toughest grind.  They practice alone, with their coach and travel alone.  They can’t be too friendly with their opponents because it may take their edge off, something they need to be successful.  It is a lonely existence.  And, unlike athletes in team sports, they are paid on performance.  There are no guaranteed contracts and while it’s true that players like Henin and Sorenstam will not starve because of their enormous talents, there still is stress that is related to performance.

I wish both Annika and Justine nothing but the best in retirement and can only hope that there are at total peace with their decisions.  That’s all we can ask for.




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